Council candidates discuss affordable housing at Ford School debate
In a debate hosted by students at the Ford School of Public Policy Wednesday, eight candidates for August’s Ann Arbor City Council primary elections discussed their positions on city issues such as affordable housing and the cleanup of a contaminated plume of groundwater in Ann Arbor.
Four incumbents seeking re-election — Kirk Westphal (D–Ward 2), Julie Grand (D–Ward 3), Graydon Krapohl (D–Ward 4) and Chuck Warpehoski (D–Ward 5) — participated in the debate, held in the Annenberg Auditorium. Sumi Kailasapathy (D–Ward 1) — the fifth also seeking re-election — was absent.
Only Kailasapathy and Krapohl are currently contested in the Democratic primary for their seats. No Republicans or independents are currently running for Council. Kailasapathy is being challenged for her Ward 1 seat by both longtime volunteer coordinator Jason Frenzel and local entrepreneur Will Leaf. Krapohl is running against Diane Giannola, manager of the University of Michigan’s startup company, Venture Accelerator, and local attorney Eric Lipson.
All eight candidates stressed affordable housing policies as one of the city’s leading issues, though most diverged on how to best remedy the issue.
Lipson said rising rent rates threaten to gentrify Ann Arbor and drive out lower-income residents. However, he also acknowledged city policies on the issue must be balanced.
“We don’t want Ann Arbor to become an enclave for the rich,” Lipson said. “At the same time, we don’t want to destroy the values that have made Ann Arbor such a great place to live.”
Frenzel and Giannola proposed encouraging low-rent housing and accessory housing — small housing units built on existing lots — near downtown. However, Leaf dismissed accessory units as a “token solution” and asserted the only systemic solution is with reforming the city’s zoning protocol to open more land for residential development, which Lipson echoed.
“City Council’s challenge is to allow the supply of land to increase in a way that’s acceptable to local residents,” Leaf said, suggesting the city allow for mixed commercial and residential zoning instead of allotting areas only for commercial or residential use. “We can allow more people to move into those commercial corridors and have it be more mixed-use.”
Warpehoski also supported a mixed-use zoning proposal, but said it isn’t a sufficient remedy to rising rents. Rather, he said subsidized housing is necessary to create truly affordable housing for low-income residents.
“We also need a housing solution that addresses very low-income households as well, and that’s a situation where we can’t solve that problem without some form of subsidy,” Warpehoski said, acknowledging new revenue sources — such as the sale of a vacant library lot — would be needed to fund a subsidy.
“I think Ann Arbor’s a wealthy enough and inclusive enough community where we should be able to do that,” he added.
The issue of the chemical plume — a slow-moving contaminated with a carcinogenic chemical mass of groundwater beneath Scio Township and Ann Arbor that is moving toward the Huron River — was also raised during the debate, with candidates disagreeing over whether to petition for federal intervention and cleanup.
Citing a lack of faith in the state’s ability to manage the contamination, Ann Arbor Township, which is a separate municipality from the city of Ann Arbor, recently authorized a petition for the Environmental Protection Agency to designate the plume to a superfund site for cleanup. Ann Arbor city officials have said they are concerned this may hurt local property values but have not yet ruled out supporting the petition.
Warpehoski said though he believes the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality has failed to contain the plume for the past two decades, he would prefer to work with the Michigan Attorney General’s office to litigate Gelman Sciences — the original polluter — for a more stringent cleanup using new standards from the DEQ, though he did not rule out supporting an eventual EPA petition. Leaf took a similar position on the EPA position.
“We have seen so little action by the state courts and the state Department of Environmental Quality to really do what it’s going to take to address that long-term threat,” Warpehoski said. “I think superfund designation is something we need to have on the table … but we absolutely need to continue fighting, whether it’s through the courts or the MDEQ.”
Frenzel also criticized the state’s efforts in managing the contaminated groundwater, but said he would never support a federal intervention, instead suggesting local residents should pressure state officials to take stronger action.
“I’m really concerned about superfund designation and its implications socially for our community,” Frenzel said. “It is not to say that I don’t find the DEQ’s actions to be pretty reprehensible at this point.”